Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
I thought the world would look different at 7:30am. I had Thoreauvian visions of untainted nature, Dillardesque hopes for remote reflection, Emersonian fancies of transcendent scenery. Instead, Prospect Park was just Prospect Park, albeit sleepier. I didn’t find a transformed world by waking up at such an ungodly Saturday hour, but I did find the group of birders I would spend the morning with. (Bless their hearts, birders are very identifiable, with their conspicuous binoculars, chunky boots, tan vests, and ball caps or fishing hats.)
Thoreauvian? Dillardesque? Emersonian? My apologies. Birding has turned me into a romantic and made me prone to hyperoble. It’s also given me very high expectations. I blame Jonathan Franzen, an avid birder, for this. In the title essay of his collection Farther Away, he writes, “I understood the difference between [David Foster Wallace’s] unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.” He even regretfully wonders if, had he started birdwatching sooner, it would have saved his marriage.
I am new to birdwatching, and I came to it obliquely, via a research divergence. But one cannot just lean casually into the feather fray. You must be immersive. So suddenly I heard myself saying, “I need these Eagle Optic binoculars. I need Birds of North America: A Guide To Field Identification. I need to watch The Central Park Effect documentary and read John James Audubon’s collected writings.” Then, before I knew it, I was perusing the Prospect Park Bird Sightings blog, studying up on patterns, habitats, and behaviors on the subway, and lacing up my L.L. Bean Boots for my first birding adventure.
“I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision,” J.A. Baker writes in The Peregrine. I too never gave birds their due. Before my interest in birding was piqued, my observed natural world was so small it could fit inside a terrarium. My knowledge of birds was little more than the scattering of black “v’s” behind the bubble clouds of my childhood drawings, the seagulls hovering on the beach when I dropped a Dorito, and the city pigeons disarming me with their boldness. I could identify a robin, a blue jay, and the other obvious culprits, but beyond that, I didn’t have the eyes to see something that deserved a name, a genus, or a journal entry. My ignorance was so pervasive that as a child, I frequently asked for the name of the black birds that murmured through the sky and sat on phone lines. I never got an answer. These birds were anonymous yet ubiquitous. No name, no distinctive traits, barely even a shape. To me, they simply existed as shadows of the idea of a bir-dah. My learning curve was as steep as Bambi’s. Birds were just flying, pecking, perching creatures, uniform and unassertive upon my consciousness, the monks of the skies. And this is why I embarked on birding: to watch the richness of these feathered creatures unfurl like the beauty of a monk’s interior life. Birds “know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us,” J.A. Baker continues. “Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse we can never reach.”
February 2, 2014. I hit the fields. My new binoculars stowed in my backpack, my birding journal scribbled with a few preliminary notes, and I was ready for my inaugural adventure. I biked into Prospect Park with only a vague idea of where to go, and I was still a little mystified about how one actually finds birds. I had been reading a lot about the ins and outs of identification, but how one sees them in the first place was apparently too obvious for any birder to mention, though I wouldn’t have minded having my intelligence insulted.
I pulled off onto a path that led to some water. As I walked, I told myself to just keep looking up. I gazed into the naked trees, vacant and dull. Maybe winter birding was going to be harder than I thought. I had imagined finding a cloistered log that I could perch on while waiting for various species to peek out or fly by. But even in February, Prospect Park had a lot of foot traffic and even more fences and muddy lawn restorations, limiting me to the broader, paved paths. Lesson #1: Birding means walking.
As I looked at the map, deciding where to go, I heard something. A bird, clearly, but what kind? Was it visible? I looked up for motion, colors, rustling, anything, but I could only see bare branches. So I leaned my bike against the fence, pulled out my binoculars, and held them to my face. I haphazardly directed them towards the birdsong, high up in the tops of the trees. Bam! A red mark filled my vision. I was looking at a bird! Somehow, I had managed to set my gaze directly on a stunning specimen: a red-bellied woodpecker. Of course I had no idea at the time what I was looking at, but I was captivated, breathless, awed. Through the binoculars, I felt like I could touch the woodpecker’s blazing head, as it ducked in and out of a hole. This bird had all the proper pomp fit for my birding inauguration. I was so excited I could have watched it for days, but I noticed another person was standing beside me. I lowered my binoculars.
“See anything?” the woman asked.
“Yes! Some sort of woodpecker!” I exclaimed and pointed. “I have no idea what kind.”
“Oh, that’s a red-bellied woodpecker.”
I saw the woman had her own pair of binoculars around her neck. “Are you a birder?” I asked. She nodded.
“It’s my first time out!” I was still giddy, and eager to get back to watching my newfound love. “This is the first bird I’ve ever seen through binoculars!” I couldn’t get the exclamations points out of my voice.
I was ready to go back to watching the woodpecker, but Kathy wanted to keep talking. She was giving me tips on where to go in the park, different clubs, the use of Twitter.
“Have you seen any birds today?” I asked.
“Yes, but just the usual ones.”
She rattled off a long list, and none of them sounded usual at all. “I’d be happy to see any of those! It’s all new for me.”
We chatted some more until she went on her way. I turned back to the tree and held up my binoculars, but alas, the woodpecker had moved on too. But I was grateful. The first time I lifted my binoculars to my face, I not only saw an exquisite creature, but I got a taste of the warm community of birders.
I strolled for the rest of the afternoon until my toes went numb, but my list — birders are all about lists! — acquired 12 new birds, some familiar, some not, but they all looked exotic under my newly attentive eyes.
When Annie Dillard watched a free-falling mockingbird spread its wings just shy of the ground, she reflected: “The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Even in Brooklyn, the world’s virtues are everywhere on display, but I had only flippantly and irresponsibly engaged with them, noting pigeons and sparrows, but ignoring the 300 of North America’s 700 bird species that were migrating through New York City each year. “The obligation of a human being is to attentiveness,” I’ve heard Marilynne Robinson say. “Life is always a matter of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus,” Christian Wiman writes. I had a lot to learn about life from birding.
April 14, 2014. Finally, it flitted through my lens. The rare visitor to Prospect Park had had groupies from all over the borough seeking it, but by the time I arrived at the special locale, there was just one other birder. The Yellow-Throated Warbler was tiny, and preferred the highest boughs; its motion was gleeful. I tried to follow the acrobatics, lowering my binoculars when it disappeared and raising them quickly when it reappeared. I had only seconds at a time to marvel at its glimmering throat a misplaced crown. I temporarily trained my eyes to only see the warbler, but my internal voice distracted me: “You’re so lucky someone tipped you off!”; “Your first rare bird!”; “Log this now!”; “Take it in!” I tried to listen to the last directive most of all.
The warbler stunned me. Watching it was exhilarating. Witnessing its beauty felt like a bracing privilege.
Then, just like that, it vanished. I waited around, hoping it would return, but it didn’t (to the dismay of a couple who had just arrived). Finally, I continued on my way, feeling nourished, expanded, light. If before I hadn’t been fully convinced by this new hobby, after that I was hooked. I strolled for another hour or so, looking for my next hit of beauty, each one so fleeting that it couldn’t be hoarded but demanded constant pursuit.
The irony of picking up a hobby that requires attentiveness is that it’s distracting. One weekend, while I was playing catch, the feathery shadows and birdsongs pulled my attention up to the left and right like a marionette. And now when I’m outside with friends, I find myself struggling to focus on the conversation. Rather than being present, I reach for my binoculars. By learning birdwatching, I might have actually made my initial challenge to learn attentiveness ever harder since I’ve filled my multi-tasking arsenal with one more diversion. And I’ve put myself at a higher risk for a social anxiety that has acquired its own acronym FOMO: the fear of missing out. Every nice May day that I haven’t chased the jeweled Spring migrants fills me with regret. The failure to chase a Summer Tanager, because I’m too hungry and tired, pings me with sadness.
“Bird-watching is an exercise in balance,” Jonathan Rosen writes in The Life of the Skies. It also requires prioritization and parameters. I quickly learned that there is a distinct hierarchy of birds. The rarer a bird, the more valuable. Basic economics. At first, it felt unjust to see a gorgeous blue jay or magnificent cardinal dismissed simply for being common, even though their colors and patterns are anything but. However, I think such partiality is part of sifting through abundance. Take the time to still notice the familiar, but chase what is scarce. There is so much beauty, once we finally look for it, that we would be toppled by it if we didn’t exercise some sort of scrutiny.
Birdwatching isn’t all romance and sublimity, though. It can also be frustrating. Your feet get tired and sometimes, you just may not see anything. “It’s the writer’s life, really,” Jonathan Franzen says in The Central Park Effect. “Any artist’s life is failing, failing, failing, waiting around, thinking nothing will ever work again. All the interesting birds are gone. Nature’s falling apart. And then, suddenly you’re seeing a prothonotary warbler, and all of that is forgotten. There’s this moment when the world is okay.” I’m sure that is why birding felt so foreign to me. I’m not naturally inclined to persevere through failure. I think many of us miss out for this same reason. We are too busy inspecting our peers on Twitter and Facebook. We mope in our failures and miss out on our own lives. And this isn’t a 21st-century problem! As Florence Merriam, an American ornithologist and nature writer, observed in 1889: “We are so in the habit of focusing our spy-glasses on our human neighbors that it seems an easy matter to label them and their affairs, but when it comes to birds — alas!, not only are there legions of kinds, but, to our bewildered fancy, they look and act exactly alike. Yet though our task seems hopeless at the outset, before we recognize the conjurer a new world of interest and beauty has opened before us.”
When I went on my first communal birding trip with the Brooklyn Bird Club at 7:30am, I wanted to step right into a new world, but I had to walk to find it. As we traced the park by following its boughs instead of its paths, Prospect Park was finally turned upside down. It transformed it into the otherworld I was hoping to enter upon arrival. Transcendence is not about when you look, but how. After a few hours of walking, and over 20 new additions to my list, the Park was as unfamiliar to me as a street aglow with Christmas lights. Its trees were decked with doodads: a great blue heron, a pine warbler, a blue-headed vireo, a downy woodpecker, and more. And so for a brief moment, my worries and woes were held at bay. Right there in my urban backyard, the world had been made new for me because amid such lavish Thoreauvian, Dillardesque, and Emersonian displays, I had learned to see the birds through the trees.
Image Credit: Flickr/Derek Keats
This past Monday, I watched the Boston Marathon. I live in Newton, so I went over and watched it about a mile from my house. I was standing a little before mile 19, from about eleven that morning, until about one. So nothing had happened yet except the marathon itself.
Patriots’ Day is always this particular Monday, closest to April 19th, which is also always the first Monday of school vacation. I haven’t seen a marathon for years, because we’ve usually been away. But this year I was here, and I felt pretty silly that we have been living so close by for so long and I hadn’t gone to watch. I knew there would be a festival sort of atmosphere. I knew it would be one of those heart-warming community events that make you feel good about humanity, although I didn’t know exactly how it would work. On Monday, I woke up feeling a little fizz of excitement, to be honest.
One child was away on his school vacation, with my husband; one child was asleep, because she’s a teenager; one was going to come with me but reneged at the last minute. So I biked over alone. I was feeling sad about that, but then lo and behold when I got there and parked my bike, I realized that across Comm Ave.—on the other side of the course—were my brother- and sister-in-law, who don’t even live in Newton and could have been spectating from anywhere along the 26.2 miles, but were instead precisely where I was. I crossed over. “God didn’t want me to be alone at the marathon,” I said.
It was early; I didn’t realize how early, marathon-wise, it was. There were a few wheelchairs, and a few of the elite women. Most of them had already gone by. We were now waiting for the elite male runners. Before long there was a phalanx of motorcycles, and photographer trucks, and then, finally, a small pack of slender men. “Oh,” breathed Teresa. “Oh. They glide.” We marveled at the efficiency of their strides. Their faces didn’t show strain but, rather, authority. Then they were gone.
Following the leader pack was the rest of the elites, more spread out. A kid near us had a vuvuzela, which nicely punctuated things. We could see each individual runner; clap and cheer; and then chat some more. We talked about how my husband—one of four brothers—ran the marathon in high school, and how a couple of years later no one in the family was running it and so another brother, Sam, called John, the brother I was standing with now, on March first and said, “You training yet?” That was back before you had to qualify. They both ran it, that year, in four hours.
John—no longer a runner, but a dedicated walker—said he started wearing Rockports after he saw a guy running in them one year. We saw a barefoot guy go by. A few Vibram sock-shoe guys. On the edge of the other side, Marines, in full gear, were walking the route. My nephew is a Marine; Teresa said his pack, in basic, had been seventy pounds. We hollered, “Thank you!” to them. They waved back.
There was still an anticipation I couldn’t identify; all the elites had passed. Whoever was going to win had come and gone.
Then I noticed my bike, which I’d left on the other side, was about to tip over. So during a lull I dashed across to fix it. There was a lemonade stand there, and I bought a chocolate chip cookie. I took a bite and then felt sort of ridiculous, being surrounded by these low-BMI types, so I stuck it in my pocket. Then I waited for a chance to cross back. But it didn’t come. The flow of runners was steadily increasing.
I waited five, ten minutes. I was stuck. I shrugged theatrically, across the four lanes, at my brother- and sister-in-law. I was alone again, but the woman I was standing next to, who had her two kids with her, was very nice. She was one of those people you just start talking to—and marathon day is one of those times you just start talking to people. But we didn’t talk much, because our business now was cheering. The runners were constant now. At first they stayed, decorously, in the right lane, next to us. I thought of calling to John and Teresa to come over to me, because I was closer. I could see the runners’ faces, their shirts.
The shirts were the thing. You began to want connection. You began to read the shirts. “Go Children’s Hospital!” “Go Brazil!” “Go Denmark!” “Go Chile!” “Go Friends of Griffin!”
Some smart ones—repeats, probably—had their names magic-markered on their fronts. “Go Kelly!” “Go Doug!” “Go Manuel!” “Go Chris!”
Some people were in costume. “Go hamburger!” “Go bee!” “Go Wonder Woman!”
There’s a guy from my church who’s run two dozen Bostons, always in costume. This year he was going as Prince William. I kept watching, but never saw him. I thought it would be impossible to miss him; but I hadn’t realized, really realized, how many people there would be. They had now spread across Comm Ave to all four lanes. We had been standing in the street since the lemonade stand was behind us, but now we had to get up on the curb, to make room. They filled the whole road edge to edge.
I was reading shirts as fast as I could. I had started clapping, and now I couldn’t stop. How could you stop? It wasn’t like a play with a standing ovation and eventually your hands are killing you and even though the thing was brilliant you have to stop. This was slow, steady clapping, for the steady stream of runners. My hands went numb. I kept clapping, and the runners kept coming.
A guy with a huge head of blue hair. “Go hair!”
Three shirtless guys. “Go shirtless guys!”
More friends of Griffin. “Go friends of Griffin!”
There were all the people raising money—“Go Dana Farber!” “Go Mass General!” You couldn’t really yell, “Go brain cancer!” so you hoped those people had names on their shirts, or instead you yelled “Great job!”
There were municipal running clubs and ballerinas and the Easter Bunny and Anchorage and Kansas City. There was Duke and Trinity and Wayne State and lots of Michigans, for some reason. There was Army and Navy and the Air Force Academy, and there were still the Marines trudging by.
Maybe because—as I now realize—it was still on the early side, meaning these were the qualifiers with better times, I didn’t see a lot of agony. There were a few who would start walking, head down. We said “You can do it,” and “You’re amazing,” which I meant, because I would sooner eat cement than run a marathon. One woman panted, “How many more hills?” but then she was gone. One guy handed us an empty plastic water bottle as he passed and said, “Do you mind throwing this away?” One guy slowed down to shake the hand of one of the walking Marines and said, “Thank you for your service.” The Marine said, “It’s an honor.” I was in the presence of people who could run a marathon and, at mile 19, still talk.
John and Teresa waved across at me and left. An old guy came by selling cowbells and I bought one. I let the kids near me use it for a while and then they gave it back and I could use it instead of clapping, and the feeling gradually returned to my palms.
But I had to keep making noise. Because they kept coming. We were standing at the top of a hill and you could look down Comm Ave. and see a river of people with no end. The excitement and the good cheer were so high and I realized I kept standing there because I was waiting for the climax, the resolution; but of course there wouldn’t be one. Not here at mile 19. I could feel, in the muted exhilaration of the runners, two-thirds of the way there, Heartbreak Hill still to come, how the marathon would be its own self-contained narrative, its own drama, for each of them. It would have its own plot, its own rise and fall of action, and I would be a tiny, tiny part of it, some crazy-lady voice yelling, “Go Cedar Rapids!” somewhere along mile 19, along with all the screaming Wellesley women, all the Boston College kids, all the hands holding out cups of water, all the clapping, all the cowbells; the despair, the nausea, the temptation to stop, the pushing through; the journey up, and then down Heartbreak Hill, and down Beacon Street, and then Boylston, and under the clock, and over the finish line.
I stayed for more than two hours but I finally left, although it felt like leaving in the middle of a movie, because I had errands to run on that day off. Two hours later, I would call my kids, to see whether they liked the crunchy or the puffy cheese doodles from Trader Joe’s, and they would tell me what they were seeing on T.V., and I would hurry home.
What I experienced Monday was an ordinary marathon. The awe at the human effort, the thousands of stories running by, the endurance, the athleticism, the will—it was all run-of-the-mill extraordinary. If there is such a thing. People wiser than I have loved the marathon for years. I just discovered it, really, and next year, without question, it will be different.
As I write this they haven’t yet found who did it. It’s looking more and more like domestic terrorism, and I suspect it’s only a few people, or even just one, someone pathetic who has slid over the line into evil, looking up bombmaking directions online. But even if it’s a larger conspiracy—even if it was some vast international network—it is dwarfed by what I saw on Monday, on Commonwealth Avenue, at the top of just one of the many hills (there are always more, there is always one more): the runners coming, coming, not stopping. Thousands. Thousands. Thousands.
Image: Stewart Dawson
I recently made the pilgrimage to what the French would call one of the hauts lieus de l’art: Marfa, Texas. Like any place of pilgrimage worthy of the name, Marfa is remote and difficult to get to. One makes the journey because the artist Donald Judd, beginning in the 1970s, moved his base of operations to this former cattle trading center, gradually buying up several properties in Marfa, Then, with the help of New York’s Dia Foundation, he purchased an entire disused Army base next to the town, over 300 acres of industrial scale warehouses, barrack and office buildings, and scads of empty space. Out of this Texican cattle barony without the cattle, he created living and working spaces for himself, as well as permanent exhibition space for his work and that of a few colleagues and friends.
Like many born east of the 100th meridian, in the green, humid half of the continent, Judd fell in love with the dry crystalline air and unforgiving light of this part of the country, with its high arid plains, its horizons punctuated with mesas and buttes. For certain artists and intellectuals, the Southwest is America’s Provence, a place where (in the American mode) the configuration of the land itself, with its vast spaces, is a kind of liberation. Marfa was Judd’s Arles, and like Van Gogh, Judd dreamt of an artist’s utopia. He didn’t realize his dream, but he did create a series of ideal settings in which art could be displayed entirely on its own terms, without the misguided interference of dealers and curators. With the creation of the Chinati Foundation, Judd put in place an institutional framework for the preservation of his vision after his death.
Now, years after Judd’s passing in 1994, Chinati is a going concern. For those in the art world, it is an item on the checklist of places to see before you die. I’ve wanted to go there for a long time, but not because I am big fan of Judd’s work or of Minimalism. Judd reached for his Luger whenever he heard the word Minimalism, as well he might, since the term is entirely apt in my view. His work, and that of his brethren, ruthlessly reduced to a set of Platonic essences, provides a minimum of sustenance for the eye. It is a Stoic’s or a Puritan’s bowl of thin porridge. Everything this kind of work has to give you is exhausted by mere moments of looking. Simplification and purification of form, elimination of content and narrative, all this exacts a high price. If, in the end, we look at art for the profound pleasure it gives us, why look at work that has , in an ascetic quest for some ideal, done away with so many of the qualities that make art pleasurable? For me, at least, years of received opinion and the torrents of ink that have been spilled arguing for the far-reaching philosophical significance of Minimalism do nothing to counteract the indifference of my eyes whenever I look at the stuff.
Why then did I want to go to this place at the back of beyond? Simple. All of Judd’s real strengths as an artist—his finely tuned sense of proportion, his sensitivity to the surface facture and weight of materials, his exquisite, but not fussy, craftsmanship—resonate much more fruitfully in his architectural and design work than in his sculpture. Judd’s plans required the renovation and often radical reconfiguration of existing structures. He also designed and built much of the furniture himself. Seeing the results of this impressive effort in photographs, I found it to be both stark and elegant. Functionality brought his forms to life for me: one of his buildings or even a desk seemed to give me much more to look at (and feel) than his artwork ever did. So off I went to Marfa. And, in the back of my mind, I hoped to be won over by the artwork itself. Maybe, seeing it under Judd’s ideal conditions, my eyes would be opened to its virtues. Only a fool closes his mind completely to new sources of pleasure. Such was my thinking before arriving in Marfa itself.
One is allowed to view the art on the former military base only as part of a tour run by Chinati. There are several permanent installations; three of these best exemplify Judd’s intentions. One is by Dan Flavin, an array of light sculptures in six barrack buildings, which is conceived of as a single work. The second is in a warehouse where a display of John Chamberlain’s wadded up automobile sculptures occupies a basilica-like space. Then, there is Judd’s own work. The centerpiece of his project in Marfa is housed in two monumental buildings, the Artillery Sheds. It comprises one hundred aluminum boxes, identical in size, lined up in three evenly spaced rows running the length of these very long buildings. Within this matrix (which includes the building itself) of Euclidean geometry gone apeshit, the boxes themselves are far from being clones of each other. Sometimes sides are open, or half-open and half-closed. The internal space of a box might be bisected by one or more horizontal, vertical or oblique planes. The metal boxes, like Flavin’s piece, are meant to be taken in as a single work on a heroic scale. Judd wanted Chinati to be a place where he, and his friends, could make real their grandest ambitions, giving them permanent form, unfettered by worldly constraints. Clearly, in this, he succeeded.
If one is of a mind to, one can follow up the Chinati tour with a late afternoon peek (also guided) at the Block, Judd’s residential compound in town. Behind high adobe walls sits various structures which contain Judd’s library, workspaces ( home to some of his early sculptures) and living space, all widely separated by a vast flat expanse paved with loose cinder rock. You admire the lovely proportions of this enclosed area and the buildings disposed across it, but the mind quails at the thought of crossing this treeless waste on a hot summer day—La Jornada del Muerto in your own backyard.
So, what does all this add up to in the end? This is the question I’ve been mulling over since the middle of the tour itself. I’m afraid that the admirable open-mindedness I boasted of earlier availed me nothing; my mainlining all this Juddiana did not make a convert of me. (Putting aside both the work of the other artists and the architecture, I will focus on Judd’s 100 Boxes alone as emblematic of the whole enterprise.) Certainly, when I entered the first Artillery Shed, I was more affected than I expected. Judd had removed the solid side walls of both buildings, replacing them with rows of large floor-to-ceiling windows, the illumination from which, reflecting off the mirrored surfaces of the boxes and the shiny polished floor, choreographed a dazzling dance of light and shadow. Some of the boxes lost their hard edges, even seemed to dissolve in this play of silvery grays and chiaroscuro blacks, changing constantly as you shifted your viewpoint. Surprisingly, these cold metal boxes were actually quite sensual.
But, after this initial enthusiasm, I soon began to experience box fatigue. Initially assuming an air of the implacable in their machined perfection, the boxes secretly want you to find them fascinating, to like them. However, Judd’s endlessly clever improvisations on the boxes’ structure actually serve to trivialize them. We look at them and their permutations, as isolated instances, forgetting that they are supposed to be components of something much larger. The variety itself sooner or later becomes tiresome and boring, or simply too much to take in. The variations are really just an empty formal strategy, an arbitrary problem the artist set up for himself. They don’t interact with each other, creating a dynamic movement, a musical counterpoint, that plays out through the piece as a whole. Therefore, the boxes never coalesce into a unified experience. As a collection of individual iterations exploring a single idea, the work in the Artillery Sheds is, up to a point, fascinating, but it very quickly becomes just one damn thing after another. The modular premise underlying the work, with its tension between overall unity and the autonomy of each module, was stretched to the breaking point by Judd’s overreaching ambition. Judd was aiming very, very high here, and didn’t make it. As a coherent work of art, I think we have to count 100 Boxes a failure.
This conclusion raises a disturbing question. Why is a failed artistic endeavor being enshrined like this? Judd is an artist who deserves our attention, but the degree of cultural canonization and institutional validation that has been conferred on his work at Marfa is commensurate with the very highest levels of achievement. Who decided that Judd’s legacy is that important? Well, for one, Judd himself, aided and abetted by a coterie of partisans of Judd’s idealist avant-gardism within the rarefied upper echelons of the American art world. Judd’s really big dreams were realized not in response to a deeply felt need in the society at large, or even because of official recognition on the part of the State, but through the decisions of a very small number of self-appointed people with, crucially, access to capital.
Ultimately, in today’s world, in which society as a whole has no agreed upon use for art, money becomes the sole and final arbiter of value, in art as in everything else. In these circumstances there is tremendous financial incentive to inflate reputations. Nothing new in that observation, but there’s another, mostly unacknowledged, tendency at work here as well. In the post-war decades, for America’s art world taste makers, a driving concern was to demonstrate, to one and all, that this country’s culture had come of age. A great culture requires great artists, but faced with a real paucity in that area, critics, curators and dealers (and artists) worked assiduously to convince themselves and us that many fine second and third-rank artists rightfully deserved to be elevated to the very pinnacles of Mount Parnassus itself. Claims were made for these artists out of all proportion to the work itself. Interesting but limited talents, such as those of Pollack or Johns, were held up as proof that, as an exhausted Europe passed the torch to the New World, America was ready. The money flowed in response to this debasement of the critical coinage, validating it. Because the art world is so insular and small, and the public obliviousness to serious art so nearly complete, there is no external reality check on this process, (which continues to this day, mostly shorn of nationalist content).
Was Judd a beneficiary, and Marfa a direct result, of this process? Is Judd’s work, in other words, worthy of the exalted treatment it receives at Chinati? My answers will be plain enough by now. But, don’t take my word for it. Everyone who cares should decide for themselves. However, relatively few people will ever be in a position to do that; because of its remoteness, few will ever go there. Regardless of what you make of my thesis, agree or disagree, this is the paradox at the core of Judd’s self-willed monument. A monument, or a museum, if we care to look at it as such, implies a public, but Chinati’s public is miniscule, a molecular fraction of a population which mostly remains ignorant of the very existence of the place. Undaunted, Chinati sits on its arid upland, its back sublimely turned on everybody except the initiate, and the mildly curious willing to go way out of their way to scratch an itch.
Despite his success, Judd felt that his work and the thought behind it was never fully understood, either by art world professionals or the informed public. Even during his life, this was probably largely true. How much more so now. In response to this incomprehension, the vision he developed for Chinati was a hermetic one, informed by more than a little despair. For all its scale and ambition, what Judd built at Marfa is a refuge from a cruelly indifferent world. Its elite financial underpinnings and its splendid isolation, physically and culturally, from the lives and concerns of most people in this country, speak volumes about the plight of the arts in a society such as ours.